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June 15, 2004

Ernie Els


RAND JERRIS: 1994 and 1997 U.S. Open Champion, Ernie Els. Talk about the golf course and any changes you may have seen since '95.

ERNIE ELS: '95, that's a long time ago. I played 18 holes this morning. Actually with Sergio it's a great test. It's a great layout. There's a couple of par-3s, that's really going to test us this week, especially the 7th hole. It's a very tough green, it's a green that runs away from you from right-to-left. With the breeze we had today, it's a long iron, it's about a 4-iron in there. And I think only it's a tough hole. No. 17 is going to be another tough par-3 with a crosswind from left-to-right. But it was in great shape, they've done a great job getting it in shape for us. It's not playing as long as it did back in '95, as I remember. But you have your work cut out for you this week. The greens are so firm already. So it's just typical U.S. Open stuff.

RAND JERRIS: As a player who's had considerable success in majors, what do you do differently when you're preparing for a championship such as this.

ERNIE ELS: Well, it's a major, you want to come in, you want to feel that your game is where it should be to get yourself around the golf course like this. I've played a lot of golf leading up to this event. I've worked on my game, so it should be almost as good as it can get right now. I've had some good events leading up to this tournament. So I feel prepared. I feel ready for the tournament. I'm going to take it quite easy in the practice rounds.

I didn't play yesterday; I played 18 today. I'm going to probably play nine tomorrow and try to get myself ready, nice and easy, to Thursday. Come Thursday I feel like I'll be ready. I've worked on my game and played a lot of competitive golf into this week.

Q. Sergio was just in here and said that the best you could do is hit 17 greens in any round, because nobody is going to hit the 7th. How many guys do you think will realistically be able to hole that green this week?

ERNIE ELS: On the 7th? Yeah, it's going to be tough to hit that green, I tell you. And I don't care which breeze is going to help us, you'll be hitting 7, 8-iron in there, and I just don't see too many balls staying on that green. The speed of these greens and the kind of slope that we have on that green, yeah, it's just not going to happen. You're going to see a lot of golf balls on the left side of that green, a lot of balls on the bunker, and a lot of 4's being made on that hole. That's just one of those things. And this is where U.S. Opens come in where you've really got to be patient. It's going to really test your patience, especially that hole.

Q. Do you see Sergio moving closer and closer to winning a major and is it a matter of just not if, but when he does?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, definitely. I think Sergio has been working on his game, as you all know. And I played with him this morning. He won last week, so he's back on track, so to speak. And he's obviously a great talent in the game. And obviously he's always going to have a chance to win a major.

Q. You talked about yourself having a strong year. Vijay Singh, Sergio, Phil Mickelson, so many players are strong heading into this event, can you talk about that?

ERNIE ELS: It's nice, those kind of players that you mentioned have been playing well. And those are the players that have had more experience than maybe any other players coming into this week in U.S. Opens. So I think you look at players like those who might do well. And actually I'd like to mention that I have played well this whole year. There's no reason why I shouldn't be in contention this week. But I think this type of golf course opens it up again for a lot of other players. I think it's not going to favor the long hitter. It's going to favor the guy who is going to keep his patience and keep the ball in play and so there's a lot of other players who have a chance to win. So it's quite an open U.S. Open this year.

Q. How many times do you figure like you're going to hit driver out there, that isn't as crucial a club this week like at Bethpage where it was longer, or are you going to use it occasionally depending on the direction of the wind?

ERNIE ELS: I feel like the front nine I was hitting quite a few drivers. And maybe just the downhill and downwind third hole today I hit a 2-iron, but the rest of them I hit drivers. There was quite a few holes that have crosswind and you've got to try to get yourself up on the fairway. You need to get yourself closer to these greens with how small. You're going to miss some fairways. And if you get yourself closer to some of these greens, you get right in there. So I'll be hitting quite a few drivers. It's not the longest U.S. Open course I've ever played, but definitely with the breeze blowing it's going to be one of the more difficult ones.

Q. Obviously the fashion in which you won Memorial impressed a lot of your fellow pros, and you said you're playing about as well as you can. How would you describe your game now compared to over your career; is this about as good as it can get, do you feel like you're sort of peaking?

ERNIE ELS: I think Memorial I played almost as good as I could. And when I get on a streak I'd like to say that's as good as it gets. I want to feel that I can still get better in this game. At the start of the year I really got it going and I feel like I got it going again a little bit, especially after The Masters disappointment. It was good to play good golf again. And it hasn't affected me too much, so I'm playing good golf again and I want to win tournaments. The way I ended Memorial, obviously that's the way you want to win golf tournaments, playing good over a weekend. That was obviously a good confidence boost. But I would like to think that I can still get a lot better in this game. So that's what we want from it.

Q. It's been ten years since the first major. Is it hard to believe that much time has passed and what are your memories of that one ten years ago?

ERNIE ELS: It's hard to believe it's ten years. It's really flown by. I've had a great time the last ten years. I think I've won 40 events, so it's really nice. The U.S. Opens, I always thought a U.S. Open would be the last one of the majors I would win, and it is sort of like this is the first major I won. I never thought my game -- I've won two of them, and finished in the Top 10 a couple of times. So it's definitely a great tournament. The way it's set up it tests your game from tee ball to short game to putting touch. It's been a great run and hopefully I have another good ten years, who knows.

Q. Ernie, obviously you recovered well from the disappointment at Augusta. How long did you allow yourself to feel any sort of self-pity and why didn't it knock the pins out from under you?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I think that it helped a lot to play the next week. I played at the MCI Heritage Classic, and as I say, back then I wanted to get back on the horse. When you get so close and you play the way that I did that Sunday and Phil just played better than me coming down the stretch. And unlike maybe other majors where I felt I made mistakes coming down the stretch and felt like maybe I had something to do with not winning, I was maybe more disappointed in those losses, but this one I felt good. I felt disappointed not winning, or having a chance to play in the playoff, but I've got to take my hat off to Phil, what he did. And I just got flat out beat. But there's nothing that I could have done much more to win that tournament. I felt disappointed right after that, but to be honest with you, I'm not thinking about it anymore. That's what happened and I've got another major and I think the win at Memorial was good for me.

Q. How does this venue, in what ways does it remind you of maybe a British Open and in what ways does this place make no mistake that we're at a U.S. Open?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I guess we're in the United States, are we? It feels like England out here. It's such a great layout. It's great to be back. It's probably the only U.S. Open that we play on this type of golf course. Maybe Pebble Beach a little bit, but this one truly the way the bunkers are cut, and the way the grass, the long stuff growing, it's got that color that we get back in the old country. And it plays very firm. It's playing very fast. It's got all the makes of a British Open, right there. It's a funny year for the Majors this year, we're playing a links at Shinnecock and obviously the British and I hear the PGA is also kind of a links golf course. It's kind of a funny year for the Majors. It definitely has that feel. And it's kind of dusty, too. And I think they have ice, here. They serve us ice here.

Q. In what ways, though, does it make it clear that it's a U.S. Open? You don't usually get this kind of undulation on the greens, you don't get the greens running at 40 on the stimp. I wonder if you could speak to that?

ERNIE ELS: The greens are not as quick as what we have on tree-lined golf courses like the year before at Bethpage. But they've got a lot of slope on them, the greens are smaller than maybe other years at Open golf courses. The bunkers are cut a little bit different. But then again the rough here, if you get off the fairways, I know it's patchy, but you can get some tough lies, so it still has that element of rough out here. And the greens are rock hard. And they're even quicker than the British Open greens. So it's still got that element of a U.S. Open, with the greens very fast and the rough up. So you've got to be very careful.

Q. The last two venues on the PGA TOUR, the Muirfield Village and Westchester Country Club, did playing those courses help prepare you at all for this week?

ERNIE ELS: Not much. Last week with the technology changes the last three or four years, that golf course is playing very different. We're going at some of the greens in 1-under par-4s. The rough was up definitely. The greens had a lot of slope in them, but they weren't as fast as these. Muirfield Village, again the greens you can maybe compare, but it was playing very soft on the fairways. Here we put huge bounces in the fairways. You're playing with a lot of breeze. You're playing knockdown shots on almost every hole.

No, I can't say that the run into the U.S. Open has been perfect. But guys that play competitive golf, it's different playing competitive golf to playing just a practice round around the U.S. It depends -- Jim Furyk is playing this week, he hasn't played in quite a few months. And he's spent a lot of time -- he's more familiar to the conditions here than we've been.

Q. There's been a lot of talk last year about the first-time major winners, and I'm curious if you thought, is there any truth to the theory that maybe players like yourself and Tiger have -- feel more pressure because of the high expectations you have or would you not agree with that?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I think -- that's a good question. I always like to put a bit of pressure on myself to try to push myself and try to get to a higher level. So I always feel that when I play in a major I really need to be in contention over the weekend and I really like to feel that. And maybe other players like to just come in and not really have any expectations and just enjoy the week for what it is.

But for one if you exempt into the Majors like we are, you can really start playing and thinking about the major ahead of time without thinking about trying to qualify and that kind of stuff. We can set our schedule to where we want it. So we can really pull our whole year around the Majors. And that's what we can do. We're kind of lucky in that way.

So, yeah, I guess we really go in there expecting to do well and trying to get as many as you can. But it's hard to say. I mean I think Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, these guys are very good players, and they came in with maybe a little different mindset, but then they've got the talent so when they're on their games, they don't have to stand back, they feel they can take it a step forward, so I feel that's what happened. But it's difficult to answer for other guys; I can only just tell you what I do.

Q. Speaking of schedules, you've played a number of consecutive weeks, how do you feel physically, and do you think this is about it for golf, this weekend?

ERNIE ELS: Yeah, it's been a long stretch, but last week, to be honest with you, I was just trying to play it cool. I had that win at Memorial and it was a tough battle over the weekend with Freddie and Tiger there and some of the other players there. And I really had to play well. And I admit it took it out of me a little bit. But last week I always enjoy Westchester, but I really said to Ricky, let's try to get ourselves ready for this week. And I had a nice week. I had a bit of a frustrating set -- I didn't play very well, but I had a pretty solid week, and I didn't do anything Monday. I was down in the city and played 18 holes this morning. I'm going to practice this afternoon. I feel very good. I feel fresh, for me, you know? So I know I'm going to have a nice break after this tournament, so you might as well go out with a bang.

Q. I know you're good and everything, but how do you hit a knock-down shot in a rock hard green? The reason I asked is Trevor Immelman was saying some of those holes you run the risk of blowing it over the green, you better throw it up in the air and take your chances?

ERNIE ELS: Well, it depends on the shot that you face. But, yeah, he's right in saying that the greens are rock hard. I don't think I've seen any other U.S. Open greens firmer than these. And especially in these conditions. You've got to be on your game. And sometimes play away from the flag, not even look at the flag; play away and give yourself hopefully a two-putt for a par or something like that.

But I still say it's fair. It's not the longest course we've ever played, so you're coming in with shorter irons. But you've got to really see what you're faced with and do what you can to make par. And at the end of the day if you're close to par by the end of this week, you're going to be close again.

Q. Do you see a decisive set of holes that are critical for the outcome of this championship and where are the birdies?

ERNIE ELS: Well, that's a good question. I think you need to get off to a good start. I think depending on the breeze, I think a prevailing breeze is the one that was blowing this week, and I remember that kind of breeze in '95. The par-5s you've got to try and get, there's only two of them. 16 is not reachable in two this week. No. 5 you really need to try and take care of that hole. You've got a good stretch of hole on the front nine to finish off with 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. And the finish is good, 17 with a cross breeze is going to be difficult to keep that ball on that green. 16 could be -- you can look at birdie, but you can also look at quite a big number if you don't hit your drive in place. I think the finish is going to be really good. You get off to a decent start. And in the middle you need to hold on, too; 6, 7, 8, 9, you need to keep it together there.

Q. You said you thought Vijay was the best player in the world this year. If you win this week and Tiger finishes outside the Top 6 or so you'll go to No. 1. Would that be enough to change your mind and what would it mean to you to be No. 1?

ERNIE ELS: Well, I think the way Vijay played -- winning three times and being in the Top 10 almost every week he played out here, I think he played the best golf in the world at that time, but things change out here pretty quickly. He still played very solidly. He was right up there last week, again. And just the way that he's striking the ball. I think he's leading the greens in regulation on Tour. He's right up there, almost every week in just the way that he's playing. I feel that before the PGA, I thought he was playing the best of all of us. Obviously things change pretty quickly, and I won at Memorial. I'm up to No. 2 now. But we're all so close.

But I think, again, the way Vijay played the last two and a half years speaks for itself, his record. And I've played pretty well the last three years, myself. Everything is right there, you know, and it's kind of exciting.

Q. (Inaudible.)

ERNIE ELS: My goal, still, is to try and make the championships, and play good and try to win golf tournaments. And the No. 1 position, that hopefully will take care of itself. I don't want to think about that, that's not my total motivation. My motivation is to win golf tournaments.

RAND JERRIS: Ernie, thanks very much for your time. Wish you luck.

End of FastScripts.

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